WESTBROOK – Going into Friday night’s game against Westbrook, the South Portland football team knew they were going to be in for a battle.
Never mind the fact that the Blazes had been blanked by Bonny Eagle in the season opener and the Riots (2-0) were coming into the game off a win over defending Class A state champion Windham, South Portland Head Coach Steve Stinson told his team that nothing was going to come easy, even against a Westbrook team that has struggled to find wins over the past two seasons.
The Riots found out quickly that Stinson was correct, as the Blazes came out of the gate fast, forcing an early turnover and jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead. But South Portland settled down and held on to win a seesaw battle 34-22 to keep their undefeated record intact.
“It is exciting, this conference is outstanding,” said Stinson after the win. “Westbrook, they’re an extremely physical football team with some good athletes.”
While he was clearly disappointed with the loss and his team’s 0-2 record, Westbrook Head Coach Jeff Guerette said that he did see some positives from his team in the loss and he can see the Blazes improving from week to week.
“I thought a lot of the things that we talked about in practice this week in terms of being more physical and in terms of being more resilient from play-to-play, I think we showed a lot of growth in those aspects and I’m happy with that,” Guerette said.
The Riots were led by quarterback Tommy Ellis, who threw for three touchdowns and added a 43-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. Westbrook was led by Manny Vincent, who had over 130 yards on the ground with an offensive touchdown and a second touchdown on a 38-yard interception return.
Westbrook got out to a quick start as the Blazes jumped on a Billy Darling fumble just under a minute into the game, setting them up on the Riots’ 40. Blazes’ quarterback Terry Webber started moving the ball, gaining 12 on a run and hitting Trevor Bates with a 21-yard pass. The Blazes would get the ball to the one, and Steven Wescott put them on the board with a one-yard plunge to make it 6-0 after a failed two-point conversion.
The Riots got into more trouble in the quarter as Ellis was picked off by Westbrook’s Magnes Lewis and then Wescott came up with another interception later in the quarter, but both times the Riots’ defense held to keep the score 6-0.
Guerette said the early lead was a combined result of the work that the Blazes did in practice in the week leading up to the game and the ability of his players to come through in the clutch. “We worked on execution on the offensive side of the ball this week, and we still have a long ways to go, but we were fortunate enough to have some players make some good plays,” he said.
“They came right down and drove the field on us,” Stinson said. “They got us off the field (by) making plays. That’s what makes Westbrook such a good team. They play at such a high level, what they do schematically is different than what you see week to week. They’re highly aggressive, which stopped a lot of our plays.”
South Portland took their first lead of the game with 8:14 to go in the second quarter as Ellis found a wide-open Logan Gaddar on the sideline for a 26-yard touchdown. Ellis added the extra point, and the Riots were on top 7-6.
South Portland lengthened their lead just under three minutes later when Ellis hit Stephen Hodge with a screen pass, Hodge got outside the Blazes’ defense and sprinted down the sidelines, breaking tackles for a 38-yard touchdown to make it 14-6. The score was set up by the Riots’ defense as Jacob Stanley made a nice interception on Webber, bringing the ball back to the 50, which was moved to the Blazes’ 32 after a personal foul on Westbrook.
But as they would do all game, Westbrook would battle right back and with just 3:13 left to go before halftime, they tied it when Vincent picked off Ellis and scored on the return, adding the two-point conversion to tie it at 14.
Refusing to let the score bother them, the Riots went back to work and took the lead back with 2:33 left in the half as Ellis took the ball on a quarterback keeper and weaved through the defense to score on a 43-yard run, he added the extra point, and South Portland went into the half with a 21-14 lead.
The game stayed tied until the 4:00 mark of the third when Westbrook struck again. On fourth-and-two from the Riots’ 10, Vincent got outside and scored through traffic to make it 21-20. Vincent then ran in the two-point conversion and with the crowd chanting “Manny, Manny, Manny” it was 22-21, Blazes.
“Manny’s a very good football player,” Guerette said. “You want to put the ball in the hands of the person who can make the plays. We’ll keep riding him.”
But the euphoria in Westbrook was to be short-lived as it took South Portland less than three minutes to seize the lead back, this time for good. With 1:11 left in the third, Stanley scored on a six-yard run to put South Portland up 27-22. The Riots put the game out of reach early in the fourth as Ellis hit Billy Darling with a 22-yard touchdown pass to make it 34-22 after the extra point.
After the game, Stinson said he was pleased with the way his team kept coming back against a very physical Westbrook squad. “It was a very good contest, I’m just glad we showed the ability to overcome adversity during that game,” Stinson said. “There’s a couple of times (we had) bad field position and momentum going against us, and we could have packed it in and given them the game tonight, but the kids responded well and we were able to put it away.”
Stinson said the work that Guerette and the rest of the Blazes’ coaching staff have put in with their players this season showed on the field Friday night. “He (Guerette) gets those kids to play,” Stinson said. “They weren’t laying down for anybody.”
This week, the Blazes will be back in action on Thursday night as they travel to Fitzpatrick Stadium to face Portland at 7 p.m. Last Friday night, the Bulldogs (0-2) got pounded by Bonny Eagle 55-20 on the road.
Looking forward, Guerette said he expects the Blazes to keep getting better week to week, and despite their 0-2 record, he doesn’t think a playoff berth is out of the realm of possibility, especially if the team keeps improving.
“I think you go from here and you say ‘are we going to make another leap in practice’,” Guerette said. “I think if we keep improving at this trajectory, by the time all is said and done, we’re going to be a pretty good football team.”